On our terrorism problem

On our terrorism problem

Declaring that "the buck stops with me," President Obama announced a set of new directives in response to the foiled bombing of Northwest Flight 253 by the now-infamous "underpants bomber." The list of presidential orders is mostly unexceptionable, and may even make a repeat performance less likely. Of course, if al Qaeda is even remotely strategic, trying an exact repeat of this attempt would be silly. Instead, they’ll study the new procedures, look for holes in them, and try some new variation. The good news is that air travel will still be incredibly safe, and no sensible person should alter their normal travel plans because they are worried about the "terrorist threat."

What’s missing from Obama’s list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren’t al Qaeda’s real raison d’être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.

So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what’s troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve.

To continue with this gloomy theme: the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA’s top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.

In terms of the actual effort to defeat al Qaeda, that event might even be more significant than the Flight 253 affair, because it suggests that some of our top analysts were out-thought by the very organization they were trying to penetrate and destroy. It has also shed new light on the close connections between the CIA and Jordanian intelligence, which is hardly something that King Abdullah’s regime needs right now. So while it’s important to learn why an obvious suspect got a visa and boarded a plane to the United States, it may be even more important to figure out how some of our best counter-terrorism operatives got gulled so successfully.

One more thing. I noted yesterday that al-Balawi’s brother told reporters that the doctor had been radicalized by the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. Today, Newsweek released an interview with the double-agent’s wife, which makes it clear that she shares his opposition to U.S. policy in the region but traces his changing views to an earlier event. According to Newsweek:

Al-Balawi ‘started to change,’ says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands."

My point is not to rehash the whole debate over the invasion of Iraq (although to be honest, I don’t think there’s much debate to be had over the folly of that particular decision). My point is simply to reiterate that any serious effort to deal with our terrorism problem has to be multi-faceted, and has to include explicit consideration of the things we do that may encourage violent, anti-American movements. Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause. 

By itself, that mere fact does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong. As I said a few days ago, one could make a case that our policy is mostly right, and that these problems are just the price we have to pay for them. But instead of having a serious debate on this question, we mostly ignore the possibility that our own actions might be making the problem worse, or we accuse anyone who does raise it of trying to "blame America first." 

President Obama’s briefing yesterday wasn’t the place for that discussion, but I’d like to think that somebody in his administration is still asking the question. Since that infamous (and increasingly inconsequential) Cairo speech, however, there’s not much evidence of that.